Now for part 8 of the Steelers All-Time All-Rookie team, in which we talk about the cornerbacks. The first seven essays are linked below, but for those who missed them, here’s how it works: I’ll include an introduction to account for some players you may expect to see, but who didn’t make the cut. Then I’ll list starters, backups, and others worth consideration — followed with a poll for Steelers Nation to weigh in.
The Ground Rules:
1 — I’m looking at the entire history of the Steelers/Pirates/Steagles/Card-Pitt.
2 — The player must have begun his career with Pittsburgh.
3 — Only the rookie year will factor in; a great career is unnecessary.
4 — The poll and the comments section are open — have at it.
(Side note: I can’t figure out how to let everyone vote on multiple players, so the poll is just for the top rookie cornerback, I guess. Oh well.)
For past essays:
And now, on to the Corners.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have fielded quite possibly the two best cornerbacks in NFL history, in Rod Woodson and Mel Blount — two lights-out cover corners who could hit you like a buffalo; who could have been superstars in the 40s, in the 70s, in the 90s, or today. And yet, you will not see either of them on the list below. Part of me just wants to scrap this piece and write a whole article about how great these guys were.
But that’s not why we’re here. We’re here to talk about rookies. Blount’s rookie year featured one pick on a bad defense. Woodson held out for half his opening year (which was already truncated by a player’s strike), and wound up starting zero games, and only making one pick. Rod was closer to making this squad (he brought his INT back to the house, and also had two fumble recoveries), but he wasn’t even the best rookie CB on that team (see below).
Those two are on the NFL’s Mount Rushmore of cornerbacks (those two ARE the NFL’s mount rushmore of cornerbacks), but they’re not the only names I had to unexpectedly leave off this list. Some of the Steelers’ more recognizable CBs didn’t start their careers in Pittsburgh, such as Joe Haden. But mostly the also-rans were guys who just didn’t do much during their first year in black and gold. Those include Deshea Townshend, Ike Taylor, J.T. Thomas, William Gay, Willie Williams, and D.J. Johnson, who combined for one start and one interception in their collective rookie seasons. Glen Edwards managed six starts and one pick for the 1971 Steelers, but six starts on the worst passing D in football is not an All Rookie look. Marv Woodson made a Pro Bowl in the 60s (yes, the Steelers have had more than one Pro Bowl cornerback named Woodson), but he made two rookie starts, and didn’t register a stat.
That leaves us with a crazy list. Let’s get to it.
Jack Butler (1951)
Started 10 games
5 interceptions, 142 yards, 1 touchdown
Led Steelers in INT yards and touchdowns
3rd in NFL in INT yards
Jack Butler was inducted into the Hall of Fame just a couple years ago, introducing him to a lot of younger Steelers fans for the first time. And that’s a good thing, because the guy was a monster. A three-time All Pro, four-time Pro Bowler, Butler led the NFL in interceptions, with 10 in 1957 (in a 12 game season). He recorded 52 interceptions in only nine years, which is almost six picks per season. Again, these are all in 12-game seasons; in a 16 game campaign, he’d be averaging eight interceptions. Per year.
As a rookie, in 1951, he finished in the NFL’s top 10 in interceptions, return yards, touchdowns, and longest interception return. He was the only rookie starter on the NFL’s #2 passing defense, and was clearly already a big-play master. He’d eventually retire tied for #2 in NFL history in interceptions and #3 in return yards (he’s still the Steelers all time leader in the latter). And despite being the youngest starter on the defense, he was clearly a man among boys in 1951.
Delton Hall (1987)
Started all 12 games during 1987 strike season
3 interceptions, 1 touchdown
2 fumble recoveries, 1 touchdown (tied for league lead)
Led NFL in non-offensive touchdowns with two
Started over Rod Woodson (0 starts)
NFL All Rookie team
I remember Delton Hall’s name from childhood, but couldn’t remember if he was any good. It turns out he was. Starting 12 games as a rookie, Hall recorded three interceptions and two fumble recoveries during the Steelers 8-7 strike-shortened 1987 campaign. (As a quick side-note, the Steelers drafted an absolute powerhouse of a secondary over three years, picking up Rod Woodson along with Hall in 1987, Thomas Everett in 1988, and Carnell Lake in 1989. All of them will get ink in this series. And that’s not even counting linebackers Greg Lloyd and Hardy Nickerson, who they also picked up in 1989. Why isn’t that period more well-known? That’s the best defensive drafting I’ve ever heard of, next to the early 70s Steelers.)
In any case, not unlike Darren Perry (stay tuned), Hall’s best work was early in his career, and he didn’t last in Pittsburgh very long. But that rookie year was special. If teams threw away from veteran starter Dwayne Woodruff in ‘87, they certainly didn’t find much luck on the other side.
Art Jones (1941)
Played 11 games, starting 9
Led NFL with 7 interceptions
Finished top 10 in NFL in 16 different offensive and special teams categories
Pro Bowl, 2nd team All Pro
I have a confession: I’m cheating with this list. I’m going to pretend that “slot corner” or “nickel corner” are positions that get to start, which means I’m naming a third starting corner. This is because I simply can’t put Art Jones on the bench after he led the NFL in interceptions, went to the Pro Bowl, and made 2nd team All Pro as a rookie.
If Art Jones is not a name you’re familiar with, take heart. He played only two seasons, and they weren’t even consecutive (he appears to have left for WWII for three seasons). A rookie in 1941, he stormed through the league as a three-way star. He finished #3 on the Steelers in rushing, #2 in receiving yards, and led the team in offensive touchdowns. Then he was the team’s primary punter (47 punts), and primary punt returner (16.6 yards per return), as well as the team’s leading scorer. And that doesn’t even get to his NFL leading seven INTs.
So Art Jones is my nickel man. Or slot man. Or something. He’s on the team, is what I’m saying.
Mike Hilton (2017)
Played 16 games, started 4
Two INTs (2nd highest total on team)
64 tackles, 6 passes defensed, 4.0 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, 8 QB hits
Top five on Steelers in all these categories
AFC Defensive Player of the Week (wk 16)
Mike Hilton was a surprise slot man in 2017. A UDFA pickup from Mississippi, Hilton had been college teammates with the Steelers 2015 2nd round draft pick, corner Senquez Gholson. Gholson couldn’t stay healthy and never played a down in Pittsburgh, but Hilton played himself onto the team in 2017 with hustle and big hits.
Hilton ultimately finished top five on the Steelers in interceptions, tackles, sacks, and four other categories, on the 13-3 squad that should have taken the AFC’s #1 seed. Hilton announced his presence strongest during a 34-6 route of the Houston Texans in week 16, recording 3.0 sacks (which tied a Steelers record for sacks by a defensive back, originally set by Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu against the Houston Texans, of all teams, back in 2005). Hilton was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week for that performance.
He was the best blitzing corner in the NFL (by a wide margin), before jumping ship this summer to Cincinnati.
Artie Burns (2018)
Played in 16 games, started 9 on AFC Runner-Up
3 interceptions (tied for team lead)
13 passes defensed (2nd on team)
65 tackles (5th on team, 1st among CBs)
1 fumble recovery in playoffs
I know what you’re thinking. And all I can say is, this list is not about a player’s career. It’s about his rookie campaign. And Artie Burns was actaully pretty good as a rookie. He started 10 games, led the Steelers in interceptions, recorded two fumble recoveries and 70 tackles, and generally looked like a legit NFL cornerback.
What happened in the future is a case study in the importance of psychology in sports, especially at positions like CB. (Cortez Allen is another.) Burns always had the tools to be a legit baller. And he showed that he could play more than once. But he lost his wings over the course of year 2. By 2018, he’d lost his starting job to journeyman Coty Sensebaugh. And then it was over.
We call him a draft bust today (and justifiably so), but it didn’t look that way for a time.
Bob Gage (1949)
Played 12 games, starting 4
5 interceptions (2nd on team)
7 fumble recoveries (1st in NFL, 19th highest number all time)
Also running back (with NFL’s longest rush — 97 yards)
And big-play special teamer, with a punt blocked & 15.9 yards per punt return (2nd in NFL)
Bob Gage is one of those guys who isn’t exactly a star anywhere, but is pretty good everywhere. (A Bob of all trades, if you will.) He’s probably the best big-play performer you’ll see on these lists, with long punt returns, blocked kicks, 97 yard rushes, 60 yard punts, and 12 takeaways on defense. If these are splash plays, then Bob Gage was a meteor shower over the ocean — just one after another after another.
Like Art Jones, he has the weird distinction of only playing two seasons of football — 1949 and 1950 — before vanishing into “his life’s work.” But that rookie rookie season was one to behold.
Bryant McFadden (2005)
12 games played, one start on Super Bowl Champ
One interception, one fumble recovery, one sack
Three pases defensed in playoffs, including game-sealers against Colts
Bryant McFadden is one of those players who always seemed like he was about to turn into the real deal, but never really did. The fact that he never really turned the corner doesn’t affect his rookie season though. That year, he sat behind Deshea Townshend and Ike Taylor, coming in as nickel man and reliever, which isn’t a “rookie of the year” narrative.
I’ve included him here because of the AFC Divisional Playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts. Most of us remember Jerome Bettis’s fumble, and Ben Roethlisberger’s amazingly prescient shoe-string tackle. Some of us remember Mike Vanderjact, the NFL’s all-time most accurate kicker, badly shanking the ensuing 43 yard field goal that would have sent the game to overtime. But between those two moments, Payton Manning banged out two straight first downs to put the Colts in field goal range. Then, with enough time for maybe three plays, Manning went for the end zone twice — attacking rookie McFadden both times. And both times, McFadden defensed the ball perfectly — preventing the touchdown without getting flagged for DPI. He even nearly made an interception on one toss.
These forgotten plays led to Vanderjact’s miss, and to Bill Cowher’s Lombardi. And it’s enough to get a name drop on my All-Rookie squad.
“Bullet” Bill Dudley (1942)
Started all 11 games for Steelers first winning team
3 interceptions (3rd on Steelers)
Pro bowler and 1st team All Pro (probably for offense)
For the first time in this series, we see a repeat performer — and of course it would be Bullet Bill Dudley. With these older guys, who went two (and sometimes three) ways, it’s hard to tell if their accolades are about offensive production or defensive. With Dudley, I’m guessing it’s offensive, where he was an absolute thoroughbred. But his three picks in 1942 are nothing to sneeze at either.
Sometimes called the greatest of the 2-way players, I’m going on faith that he was a stud defensive back, even though I don’t have much in the way of stats to measure.
Curt Sandig (1942)
Played in all 11 games, stated 8, on Steelers first winning team
5 interceptions for 94 yards (both led Steelers)
Tied Sammy Baugh for 5th in NFL in interceptions
Also specieal teamer 23.7 yds on punt returns (1 TD), 24.0 on KO returns, 37 punts
At least once over the course of writing each of these, I find myself just gushing about the old old old days. In this case, I just want to draw your attention to the pre-game ad poster above. Man, the 40s we strange.
In Curt Sandig’s case, we have yet another career interrupted by WWII. Sandig played for the Steelers in 1942, then for an AAFC squad called the Buffalo Bisons in 1946. That’s the career. His rookie season was the better of the two, where he placed top 10 in the NFL in a half-dozen special teams categories, as well as interceptions and return yards. When you’ve tied Sammy Baugh in one category, and beaten out Bill Dudley in a second, you’ve had a pretty decent season.
Dwayne Woodruff (1979)
Played in all 16 games, starting 1, for Steelers fourth Super Bowl champ
Added two more INTs during playoffs
Imagine starting a game as a rookie on the 1979 Steelers, the defending champs and greatest defense of all time, marching toward their fourth title in six years. With a gruff teacher like Chuck Noll as your coach, and a teammate on the opposite side that is so dominant they’ve changed the rules to slow him down. Dwayne Woodruff ought to be a heart surgeon now, because he must have icewater in those veins.
Woodruff didn’t do a tremendous amount as a rookie, but he recorded interceptions in both playoff wins that brought the Steelers to SB 14. Over the next dozen years, he would go on to record 37 interceptions, and provide the defensive bridge from the Steel Curtain of Mel Blount, Joe Greene, and Jack Lambert, to the beginnings of the Blitzburgh teams of the 90s, lining up alonside young Rod Woodson, Carnell Lake, and Gregg Lloyd. And obviously, the guy was tough as nails.
Chad Scott (1997)
Played 13 games, started 9, on AFC Conference Runner-Up
Two interceptions, plus one more in playoffs
Honestly, I didn’t expect Chad Scott to appear on this squad. But his 1997 season was surprisingly strong, on a very strong defense. Originally drafted to replace Rod Woodson (a loser’s battle, if there ever was one), Scott came on in the playoffs that year, with seven tackles and a pick against the defending AFC champion New England Patriots in a divisional playoff win.
Scott isn’t remembered that well in these parts, but his career is more impressive than you might recall. His 2001 season was especially spectacular (5 INTs, 204 yards, 2 TDs, 19 passes defensed). But he never did become the shut-down corner Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe thought he would. His rookie season looked like a lot of potential, though.
Deon Figures (1993)
Played 15 games, started 4, for AFC’s #1 seed
One interception, with a 78 yard return
One forced fumble, two fumbe recoveries
Deon Figures stuck around Pittsburgh for four seasons, only landing as a regular starter in 1994. But his rookie year looked mighty promising. Three takeaways — one with a ridiculously long return (especially since he didn’t score!) — is not an easy feat for a rookie on a stacked team. There’s not ultimately much to say beyond that, but in assembling this team, he earned a look, just not a bid.
All Rookie Cornerbacks
Alright, only two lists left. Safeties and Special Teams. Stay tuned.